We have all engaged in the practice of instructional rounds where we visit schools and observe classes with an eye on the interactions between students, teachers, and task. During our classroom visits, we listen carefully to classroom conversations, take note of teacher assessment practices, and speak directly to students about what they are learning. This practice can be invaluable as it builds our understanding of how students experience instruction during their school day.

However, in their 2014 Principal Leadership article “Using Teacher Learning Walks to Improve Instruction,” Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey offer an additional--and different--approach to visiting classrooms: ghost walks.

Unlike instructional rounds which happen during the school day, ghost walks occur when staff and students aren’t there, thereby shifting the focus from classroom interactions to the classroom’s physical environment. As observers tour the school, they can focus on the following aspects of the physical environment and consider what they reveal about who or what is valued; how power, autonomy, and inclusion are established and cultivated; and what expectations, biases, and philosophies are held about students and education in general:

  • Furniture arrangement: Who sits where and why?
  • Content-based resources and decor: How does the classroom reflect the content being taught and serve as a resource for students?
  • Student work: What student work is posted and what does it say about expectations for students?
  • Cultural responsiveness, equity, and inclusion: Who is represented in the decor? In the posted student work? In the texts on the shelves?
  • Purpose and Structure: How are the purpose and structure of lessons and units communicated? How do students know where they’re going, where they’ve been, and how the two are connected?
  • Cleanliness and atmosphere: Is the space clean and organized? Warm and welcoming?
  • Uniformity and cohesion: Is there evidence of standardized systems across classrooms?

When analyzed carefully, these aspects of the physical environment serve as key indicators of larger beliefs. The spaces we occupy and the ways in which we do or do not maintain them--particularly for others--speaks volumes about who and what we value. And so, while the traditional practice of instructional rounds asks us to listen to teachers and students, a ghost walk asks us to hear an unspoken voice. By listening carefully, we may just discover that the walls really do talk.